FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Michael Qualls produced plenty of highlights in nonconference play, establishing himself as the Razorbacks’ top scorer behind a handful of impressive dunks, hustle buckets and 3-point shots.
It was a sign the sophomore had grown by leaps and bounds since his first season, showing a willingness to shoulder a leading role. He was dynamic and dependable, scoring in double figures in 12 of 13 games. Qualls also was someone Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believed he could count on as SEC play approached.
But things changed after two conference games.
"He’s got to find his rhythm," Anderson said after Qualls struggled to score for the second straight game in the 84-82 overtime loss to Florida. "That’s all. It’s a matter of just getting his rhythm and confidence. Get his confidence back."
Arkansas, which may have reached a desperation point just three games into the 18-game conference schedule, needs its leading scorer to regain his form with the forefront with 13th-ranked Kentucky coming to Bud Walton Arena tonight. The Shreveport, La., native is a combined 3-for-22 (13.6 percent) and is averaging 6 points, which is well below his season averages of 46.7 percent and 12.7 points.
Restoring his confidence has been an emphasis the past few days, but Qualls isn’t alone. His shooting woes have simply been part of the Razorbacks’ 0-2 start.
Most of the Arkansas roster has struggled as well. Missed layups, long-range shooting woes and free-throw misses have been evident in the Razorbacks’ slow start. So Anderson said Monday his team needs to get "creative" to find ways to improve against a Kentucky team that has seven McDonald’s All-Americans.
"I think we’ve got to create some opportunities in transition and just get in a rhythm," Anderson said. "The result of good shooting is good passing, and obviously I think we’ve got to get the game in up-tempo, more to our liking. I think you’ll see the rhythm really come in effect with our basketball team. … We’re taking good shots. We just got to make them. That’s all."
Qualls can attest it isn’t as easy as that as he wades through the biggest downfall.
He was 1-for-12 in the Texas A&M loss with most of his misses coming right at the rim. The struggles continued at Florida, when Qualls was 1-for-9 until a 3-pointer went in at the buzzer to close the game. He finished with 10 points.
Qualls managed to get to the free-throw line for half of his point total (5-for-6) and finished with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. It couldn’t ignite his shooting, but Anderson said Qualls needs to stick with the plan and success will follow.
"I think he’s got to engage himself," Anderson said. "Mike’s an energy guy … and I think he’s got to be engaged with that mindset. So, sometimes you start thinking too much and he’s just got to start playing and showcase and play to his God-given abilities. Sometimes it’s just like even with a team. Something can get you going. …
"A dunk, a layup, a free throw or shot can get you going. Or even, let’s say on a defense, a great blocked shot. It can get you engaged. So, we need him to play well. We need all our guys to play at a high level."
The Razorbacks are in danger of falling to 0-3 in SEC play with another disappointing game, which would make their NCAA Tournament aspirations difficult to achieve. The Wildcats are the second straight ranked team to visit Fayetteville and, once again, sport a roster loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has seven of them on this season’s roster, including talented big men Julius Randle (16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds) and Willie Cauley-Stein (9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds). But Calipari called Arkansas a "terrific" shooting team despite its recent struggles and expects to see an inspired group tonight.
"They always play well against us," said Calipari, whose team suffered a 73-60 loss in Fayetteville last season. "I mean, they always do. The games that I’ve coached against Arkansas, they play well. …. I think the Texas A&M was a little bit of an anomaly. But what I saw in the Florida tape, they’re a terrific team."
Arkansas certainly has plenty prove after folding late against the Gators.
The Razorbacks were within reach of an important win after building a seven-point lead with roughly four minutes remaining. But Arkansas went into an offensive slump the rest of regulation, going 1-for-6 from the field and 1-for-1 from the free-throw line. The empty possessions helped Florida tie the game at the end of regulation, then take control in the early minutes of overtime to escape with a win.
"We had a lot of mental errors and mental breakdowns," Arkansas guard Ky Madden said. "Just mistakes happened and we have to learn from them."
But the problems weren’t just isolated in the final few minutes.
In fact, they’ve followed the Razorbacks throughout SEC play and has them in danger of falling into an SEC hole that could be impossible to climb out of. Anderson said he is confident his team will be ready to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky, though.
"I feel good about our basketball team," Anderson said. "We were in position to win (against Florida). We just didn’t do the things that you have got to do to win in the end. I think as long as we learn from it we are going to be in the hunt for something. I don’t know what it is, but we are going to be in the hunt for something."